Mac Wellman is a play write, poet, and fiction writer, yet transcends all of these traditional literary categories. His books are many and include the most recent The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. Wellman is a loved figure in the NYC performance community, and especially loved by his MFA students at Brooklyn College where he is a professor.
I have always had an aversion to theater. And maybe my own aversion to theater is similar to the one Mac Wellman has described for himself, though he is considered to be one of the foremost American play writes writing and producing plays today. For what Wellman sites as the dominant theater of our day entertains a situation of what he calls the “already known.” When we go to a play—and this is perhaps what is disappointing about theater—whatever twists and turns the plot takes there remains the problem of plot itself, known more or less in advance of the journey, known in advance of actually attending the theater as an act of mind—a transient and momentary thing. What is disappointing to Mac Wellman about theater as it has typically been conceived through Aristotlean drama, is that while it may stage sentiment it does not allow for acts of mindfulness, awareness, thought, attention, meditation, inner vision. What is the solution to this sorry state of theater, reduced to a few key players, if not a kind of decadent moralism Wellman attributes to the British group around Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane?
As Karinne Keithley Syers shows us in a recent article about Wellman’s work published in the latest issue of Postmodern Culture devoted to “poets theater,” “This Theater is a Strange Hole: Mac Wellman's Poetics of Apparence,” one possible solution is to make holes in the structure of plays; to thus make holey (h-o-l-e-y), but also in some sense holy, which is to say devoted. Taking up a mathematics of holes, Syers shows us to what extent Wellman’s work is structured through a set of precise absences which create intense feelings for the missing and intentionally left-out. The play, as it were, becomes a thing in a thing it is not. Through the absences and structural displacements of Wellman’s work—both at the level of the line, and at the macro level of the larger play, story, or poem—he gives us space to fill-in and fill-out—to become the hole as it were, to produce a wholeness without totality (that always leaves room to grow, wiggle room, cognitive space). And, following the phenomenology of Gertrude Stein whose work is partially a study of audience—the way audiences think, listen, observe, attend—Wellman realizes that the missing component of any dramatic situation—what he calls both acts of “apperception” and “apparence”—is in fact us. Someone who may theophanically fulfill the writer’s intention without exhausting it. Such curiosity about the life of the mind—wanting to demarcate or show how the mind works heuristically, through a dramatic-poetic process—is a wonderful thing to participate in and witness, and something that I wish more theater were capable of.